River Bluff High football players were eager to hit the field for practice Wednesday evening but were sent back to the locker room by the coaches.
After a 20-minute or so delay, the players hit the field in shirts and helmets when the reading of the Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer deemed it safe to begin practice. In the spring, the South Carolina High School League passed a rule making it mandatory for all high schools and middle schools to use the thermometers to monitor conditions to help prevent exertional heat stroke, which can happen when one’s body temperature is too high.
The WBGTs are being used for all outdoor sports.
“I think it is good having everyone doing the same exact thing across the board. I think it makes a big difference for rules and regulation to be the same,” Ridge View athletic trainer Jeffrey Sincavage said. “There are guidelines as to what you are doing to adjust your practice. It is not left up to any kind of interpretation. Once it hits a certain reading, you adjust for this end of practice.”
The thermometers check conditions related to temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover. A WBGT reading of under 82 allows for normal activities while 82 to 90 forces limitations on what teams can do. A reading of 92.1 cancels outdoor activities until conditions improve.
Sincavage said one of his jobs during practice is to monitor the WBGT and communicate it to the coaches. Ridge View practices mainly in the evenings and hasn’t had too many delays.
Most teams practice early in the morning to avoid delays, but even then they’re not immune to the humidity. On Monday, Gilbert began practice at 8 a.m. in full pads but had to go back inside and return to the field in just shorts once the WBGT reading went down again.
“We are trying to keep the kids safe, and that is the most important thing,” Gilbert coach Chad Leaphart said. “It takes some planning. It is different and more stringent than what we had. You’ve got to get creative with it and how you schedule things.”
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there were 61 heat-related football deaths from 1995 to 2015, with 46 coming at the high school level.
In 2016, River Bluff’s Lewis Simpkins died after collapsing during a practice. The Lexington County coroner concluded Simpkins died from a pair of pre-existing heart conditions that were exacerbated by the heat and humidity that afternoon. Simpkins’ family has brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Lexington 1 school district, Lexington County, the SCHSL and the S.C. Board of Education for failing to adopt and enforce policies to protect student-athletes training in extreme conditions.
Leaphart said Gilbert has been using the WBGT for a few years, and many other Midlands programs were as well. Chapin coach Justin Gentry said his school has been using the tool even before he took over with the Eagles eight years ago.
“It is a great thing. We never want to compromise safety,” Gentry said. “Our longtime trainer, Fred Williams, was a pioneer, and we have been doing it at least eight years since I have been here. We want to make sure we stay safe, not just players, but coaches, too. We do a good job of taking care of things on the front end.”
Gentry and Leaphart said the biggest challenge will be when school starts and teams have to practice in the afternoon. Regular-season games start next week. Jamborees are scheduled for this weekend, with some beginning at 5 p.m. when temperatures might be in the upper 80s or low 90s.
Gentry pushed back start times a bit for Chapin’s jamboree on Saturday to 6 p.m.
Around the state, most kickoffs for regular-season games are 7:30 p.m. At last month’s coaches convention, Gentry said there were discussions among coaches about moving early-season kickoffs to 8 p.m. in the future.
The SCHSL added mandatory water breaks during early-season games when the temperatures are higher. No games will start if the WBGT reading is over 92.1, the SCHSL said.
“We are warming up well before 7:30 p.m. so we need to be taking wet-bulb readings even during warmups and make sure we are properly hydrating our athletes,” Sincavage said. “We work together with coaches, athletic directors and referees much like we do with lightning. We talk with the other athletic trainers, saying, ‘See what your reading is saying,’ and we do what is best with the kids.”
WBGT readings and the activity/rest break guidelines
▪ Under 82.0: Normal activities. Provide at least three separate rest breaks each hour of minimum duration of three minutes each during workout.
▪ 82.0 to 86.9: Use discretion for intense or prolonged exercise; watch at-risk players carefully. Provide at least three separate rest breaks each hour for a minimum of four minutes each.
▪ 87.0 to 89.9: Maximum practice time is two hours. For football, players are restricted to helmet, shoulder pads and shorts during practice. All protective equipment must be removed for conditioning activities. For all sports, provide at least four separate rest breaks each hour of a minimum of four minutes each.
▪ 90.0 to 92.0: Maximum length of practice is one hour. No protective equipment may be worn during practice, and there may be no conditioning activities. There must be 20 minutes of rest breaks provided during the hour of practice.
▪ Over 92.1: No outdoor workouts. Cancel exercise and delay practices until a cooler WBGT reading occurs.